Fifty Years Since Ford Strikes U.K. Women Still Fighting on Pay

(Bloomberg) -- Fifty years ago, nearly 200 women from an East London Ford Motor Co. factory took to the streets to strike over unfair pay. Their actions halted production for three weeks and ushered in the U.K.’s first equal pay law, kicking off a new front in the battle for gender equality.

“Every year we had this come up with the wages and every year they turned us down,” said Gwen Davis, now 85, on a panel marking the 50th anniversary of the June 7 strikes at the University of East London. “They kept telling us we weren’t skilled workers.” In the end, she said, “We went into the plant, picked up our handbags, locked our lockers and went.”

The 50th anniversary arrives as Britain grapples with another law designed to encourage equal economic opportunity for men and women. In April, U.K. companies with 250 employees or more were required to report the average and median differences in hourly and bonus pay between male and female employees. While the 1968 strikes led to the legal prohibition on pay discrimination, based on gender, this law highlights something else: Men still monopolize the top jobs, while women remain at the bottom.

At the time, the Ford strikers focused on how their jobs were graded. Their roles, stitching car and van seat covers, had been considered unskilled by the company, which meant they fell into a lower pay range. “We didn’t dream of equal pay, in them days you didn’t. Men got more than you always,” said Eileen Pullen, now 88. It was only by “protesting our grading, that equal pay came into it.”

The London strike, decided by a show of hands, spurred women at Ford’s Halewood plant near Liverpool to also walk out. After three weeks, the women settled for 92 percent of the men’s pay rate, instead of the 85 percent they’d been receiving.

At the time, it was common -- and legal -- for companies to advertise a pay rate for men and another, lower one for women. The disparity in pay stemmed from the cultural belief at that time that men should be the breadwinners in a family and working women shouldn’t take away from the money men were earning.

“The women’s movement sort of rose up in the 1960s and was like, ‘No, we’re equal, we’re not inferior to men, and therefore we should be on an equal footing,’” said Harriet Harman, a U.K. lawmaker who helped spearhead the pay disclosure law that took effect this year.

While the Ford women received a pay rise in 1968, it took 16 years and another strike before their jobs were re-classified at a higher level. Now retired, the original strikers have met up over the years and talked about the action. In 2010, the movie Made in Dagenham starring Gemma Arterton, popularized their stories.

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